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Melatonin Can Mean Better Sleep for The Totally Blind

 

We’ve heard a lot in the past couple of years about a study being done in the U.S. on a medication designed to assist those without light perception to establish a normal sleep-wake cycle.  Blind people who experience sleeplessness during the night as well as daytime sleepiness are said to have a condition which has been called non-24 sleep-wake disorder, or non-24.  

Here are some startling statistics from a November 2012 article that appeared in Alyssa Botelho's Boston Globe article, "Blind often afflicted with rare sleep disorder":

Of approximately 100,000 totally blind people in the United States, anywhere from 55 percent to 70 percent of them may suffer from non-24, according to Harvard neuroscientist Steven Lockley, one of the lead researchers in an ongoing clinical trial investigating sleep disorders in the blind.

The article went on to explain:

Most people’s internal clocks naturally run slightly longer than 24 hours. Among the sighted, the clock is reset each day by signals from light-sensing cells in the eyes. But those who are totally blind lack this master reset mechanism.

In theory, a blind person with a cycle of 24.5 hours would feel ready for sleep 30 minutes later each day. In about three weeks — as the body’s natural bedtime inches its way around the clock — the brain’s “biological night” would be in the middle of the afternoon. This is when weeks of bad sleep suddenly strike for blind people struggling to maintain a normal schedule. Their fatigue is similar to that of someone traveling across time zones.

“If you are jet lagged you might feel this way for a few days — but you don’t feel this way for life,” said Lockley, who also works in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

 

Understandably, the study has only a limited number of participants.  More and more people who aren’t involved with the study, however, are having considerable success with Melatonin (pronounced mel-a-toe-nin) supplements.

According to Wikipedia, melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, a small pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain.  It is activated by darkness, and results in drowsiness.  In individuals who don’t see light, the production of melatonin may not peak at night, which may result in circadian rhythm or biological clock disturbances.

Due in large part to severe daytime sleepiness which frequently reared its head during conversations, and even at mealtimes, I was diagnosed several years ago with narcolepsy.  The sleep specialist in Toronto whom I was finally referred to surmised that I had probably developed it during my teens.  When I moved to Peterborough in February of 2012, however, I mentioned non-24 to my new doctor who is an internal medicine specialist, and she recommended that I try melatonin supplements.  I’m pleased to be able to report that I haven’t taken a sleeping pill since last June.

One common side effect that I have experienced, however, is the presence of vivid dreams.  My doctor theorizes that because the brain uses dreams as a way of sorting through the happenings of the day, and because I haven’t slept well for years, I’ll probably experience vivid dreams for quite some time to come.

Dr. Michael J. Breus, a certified sleep specialist, cautions, however, that "Melatonin is a sleep and body clock regulator – NOT a sleep initiator. Melatonin works with your biological clock by telling your brain when it is time to sleep. Melatonin does not increase your sleep drive or need for sleep."  (See his article, Melatonin not a magic bullet for sleep, for details.)

Is Melatonin right for you?  For further information on melatonin, either in its natural form, or in supplements, check out either www.wikipedia.com or www.webmd.com.

In concluding, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of consulting with your own family doctor before beginning to  take any medication or supplement. 

Disclaimer:

The thoughts and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and fundraising partners.

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